Wonderful Beasts – The Art Of Whisper

Front cover

More than ever before, ambient music feels somehow necessary right now. It represents a vehicle through which to still one’s restless mind amid a tickertape feed of dystopian signals, harrowing statistics and only the briefest flourishes of hope. Whether as a tool for absorption or distraction, ambient music can centre you elsewhere, allowing you to regain focus and perspective.

Unfortunately, a lot of ambient music is also terminally boring, the equivalent of sonic wallpaper or a naff pastiche of inconsequential New Age reference points. That accusation thankfully cannot be levied at Wonderful Beasts, a pairing of electronic artists boycalledcrow and Xqui, whose first collaboration together is anything but music to drift off to sleep to.

For the most part, The Art Of Whisper is built from blocks of gauzy texture, etiolated clouds of sound that float past you and hover, mirage-like and just out to reach, before vanishing into nothingness. Sprinkles of delicate synth melodies are cast over pieces like ‘I Fell Into A Dream’, a languid pace and frosty atmosphere evoking crystalline structures and ghostly shimmer. ‘Love Her’ and ‘Quiet’ include what could be the heavily-processed sound of pealing church bells submerged under layers and layers of dense reverb so as to leave the merest trace outline of joyfulness.

Elsewhere, there are pieces that break free of these beatific soundworlds. ‘My Old Guitar’ has a firmness and drama, its delicate melodic gestures nudged forward with a murky bass undertow and a distant beat. The track opens with a distorted, over-amped synth passage, creating the sense of memory and nostalgia enshrined in the title. A similar effect can be found on ‘She Is The Melody Man’, wherein a pounded, tribal rhythm supports a framework of high-velocity sequences and plucked guitar-like sounds, simultaneously carrying a sense of threat but also a youthful vigour, like looking back on the adventure games you played as a child. ‘Into The Emerald Eye’ is perhaps the noisiest piece here, with squalling layers of angry noise that finally ebb away into the same stylistic terrain as the likes of ‘Love Her’.

What boycalledcrow and Xqui offer is a sense of narrative without once revealing the story, offering little more than glimpses of moments freighted with emotional, yet ephemeral significance. To do that within the context of ambient music is nothing short of remarkable.

The Art Of Whisper by Wonderful Beasts was released March 20 2020 by Wormhole World.

(c) 2020 Further.

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble – Many

As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.

One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.

Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.

Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.

The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.

Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Erlend Apneseth – Fragmentarium

Fragmentarium follows on from last year’s brilliant Salika, Molika album for the wonderful Hubro imprint. This new collection of seven delicately-assembled pieces finds Hardanger fiddle maestro Erlend Apneseth joined by Stein Urheim (guitar / bouzouki / electronics), Anja Lauvdal (piano / synth / electronics), Hans Hulbækmo (drums / percussion / flute), Fredrik Luhr Dietricshson (double bass) and Ida Løvli Hidle (accordion).

Opening with the mesmeric shapes of ‘Gangar’, Apneseth offers a rich tapestry of sounds straddling traditional Nordic folk forms with more modernistic flourishes – delicate synth sprinkles, arrangements that nod toward jazz and a sense of casual discordance. The album’s title track buzzes with an angry, claustrophobic noisiness punctured with layers of Jew’s harp and Apneseth’s evocative fiddle playing. Throughout that piece, and indeed across the whole album, we hear processed, floating voices drifting in and out, each one borrowed from the Norwegian folk museum in Prestfoss, creating an odd sensation of being adrift from time and place: who do these voices belong to? When were they recorded? What are they saying?

Apneseth’s skill is to ensure that his fiddle playing never stays too long in the mournful, stirring channel that it all-too-readily lends itself too. Here we find him offering playful, unexpected gestures and more aggressively-wrought passages, interspersed with sections that nod firmly in the direction of Nordic folk tradition. As a bandleader, he allows a sense of freedom and experimentation to develop among his accomplished group, resulting in incredibly tight playing but a flexible, evolving approach to composition.

The signature track on the album arrives in ‘Der mørknar’, a densely-packed sequence of heavy drones, fluctuating synths, spacey guitar riffs and expressive fiddle, all glued together with percussive restraint and plaintive piano clusters. The effect is one of constant, unresolved momentum, a feeling of pointing toward something that never quite arrives; in place of the wild pay-off, the track collapses into gentle fiddle shapes, a rare moment of introspection in an album that studiously avoids self-absorption.

Fragmentarium by Erlend Apneseth was released February 28 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Jazzrausch Bigband – Beethoven’s Breakdown

The follow-up to last year’s Christmas album Still! Still! Still! and the reissue of 2018’s Dancing Wittgenstein, Beethoven’s Breakdown exemplifies what composer / arranger Leonhard Kuhn and bandleader Roman Sladek’s Jazzrausch Bigband do best: namely, creating large-scale sonic landscapes occupying the nexus of jazz, classical music and house music.

If that still seems unlikely, one cursory listen to the group’s arrangement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata should help dispel any sort of notion that this is some sort of novelty hybrid. Here, the piece’s familiar melodic motif is interwoven with a thudding dance beat and freeform brass solos that swing gently on the framework of the composition, never detracting, but highlight this Munich-based sixteen-piece band’s dexterity within the jazz oeuvre. The major surprise are the small, subtly evolving circular sections running throughout the piece, creating a familiar sensation for anyone used to hearing the tweaked modulations of a minimal techno track, but here providing the connective tissue between that strain of dance music, Terry Riley and Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics. It perhaps shouldn’t work, but it does.

Beethoven’s Breakdown sees Kuhn and Sladek distinctively re-interpreting three Beethoven pieces – the aforementioned ‘Moonlight’ sonata, his Symphony No. 7 and the two-part String Quartet No. 14. Each one is delivered with the flair and sensitivity that Jazzrausch Bigband have become known for, in other words being respectful of the source material, the jazz tradition and the expected formalism of house while still allowing enough room for gentle improvisation. Leonhard Kuhn’s synths are deployed carefully, never detracting from the traditional jazz instrumentation but also providing interesting detail and colour throughout.

The album also includes a four-part sonata composed by Kuhn and featuring the trombone of Nils Landgren. This piece nods firmly in the direction of Beethoven but have more of an open, less densely-packed dimension that allows greater room for soloing – Landgren’s expressive trombone, the combined pianos of Severin Krieger and Kevin André Welch and Kuhn’s blipping electronics.

The element that is perhaps least appreciated, yet omnipresent, here is Silvan Strauß’s drum technique, wherein the entire album hinges on his ability to play unwavering robotic drum machine patterns and more complex polyrhythms, often alongside Kuhn’s programmed rhythms.

Beethoven’s Breakdown by Jazzrausch Bigband is released March 27 2020 by ACT Records.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Nokuit – Live At Cafe OTO

Live At Cafe OTO captures the debut 30-minute live performance by sound artist and NKT cassette label head Nokuit, recorded at London’s experimental music epicentre during the summer of 2018.

Presented as a single piece, the set is a bold, antagonising stew of sonic motifs right from the get-go: snatches of news broadcasts, spinning and eddying sounds, recordings of parade ground preparations, noir atmospheres, predatory electronic tones, metallic distortion and squalls of what might be violins are all melded together into something that, in another artist’s hands, might have been noise for noise’s sake.

Instead, the set consists of brief segments of pieces taken from previous Nokuit releases, each one carefully and delicately composed with a curatorial zeal that gives the set a soundtrack-y tension and a claustrophobia-inducing awareness of the value of intricate detail. The result is a busy, restless urgency that is never still for a second and never anything but enveloping and engaging in the completeness of its sonic breadth.

As a piece of brooding, dark ambience, Live At Cafe OTO sounds vaguely like one of the imagined soundtracks for cult books issued by the Bibliotapes imprint, only here the narrative we have is entirely of our own design. Nokuit himself calls it a ‘soundtrack to a film that has left its screenwriters behind’; and yet, in the closing, piano and grubby synth symphony that edges us to the set’s conclusion, we hear faithful echoes of everything from the first Terminator movie to Blade Runner to any other film relying on shadowy, bleak representations of dystopian futures as its central concern.

Live At Cafe OTO by Nokuit was released February 21 2020 by NKT.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

John Chantler & Johannes Lund – Andersabo

Johs&John1_front

A second duo outing for Swedish / Australian John Chantler (pump organ, synths) and Denmark’s Johannes Lund (saxophone), recorded during a residency in Sweden’s Andersabo.

Consisting of three long tracks, each piece here is its own unique soundworld full of clashing sounds, vibrant tensions and noisy interplay. Opener ‘Back Of The House’ has a playful quality thanks to Lund’s rapid, fluttering saxophone cycles, performed in such a way that he never seems to pause once for breath; his sax might be the focal point but it is the swirling, droning, seesawing organs that set the mood here, creating a beautiful discordant energy.

‘Open Field & Forest’ acts as a moment of quiet repose, Chantler’s sounds acting like a bed of ambient noise over which field recordings of birdsong, creaking wood and insectoid chatter are overlaid. Lund arrives in the piece’s final minutes with some processed, murky bleating that sounds like metallic scraping, but on the whole this piece is a delicate pause for reflection.

In contrast, ‘Under Barn Floor’ is a busy, maximalist summation of both the preceding pieces, built up from earthy, growling sounds, shimmering organ layers and a grubby, subtly nihilistic intensity.

Andersabo by John Chantler and Johannes Lund was released February 12 2020 by Johs & John.

(c) 2020 Further.

Avi Pfeffer – A Lasting Impression

avipfeffer.jpg

Classical music and electronics are currently locked in a comfortable embrace. This has arisen largely as a consequence of modern compositional methods which rely heavily on the ambience and atmospherics that a careful-deployed analogue synth or some after-hours digital manipulation can add to the music.

It wasn’t ever thus. From more or less the beginning of synthesizer technology becoming more accessible, the game in town was to produce electronic arrangements of classical pieces, and that’s the jumping-off point for Boston composer Avi Pfeffer’s A Lasting Impression.

The four-part suite uses classical structures and figures but is delivered entirely electronically. Beats drift in then ebb away, melodic gestures re-emerge continually and Pfeffer deploys a dizzying array of sounds, textures and rhythms throughout the almost hour-long album. The tonality of these collected sounds is especially important – this isn’t gauzy, drifting ambience or modern glitch-heavy soundtrack noir, but bold, grandiose sounds arranged into longform movements. I’ve never quite grasped the vernacular to articulate why this is, but there’s something about hearing electronics used in this way – a particular challenge when your diet consists primarily of people twiddling modular synth knobs or making electronic pop – that makes me think of Don Dorsey’s distinctive retrofuturism.

Dorsey made a series of electronic albums in the mid-1980s that essentially took Bach’s music and recreated their austere presentation with an enviable kitlist of cutting-edge electronic equipment, much as Wendy Carlos had done twenty years before. He also went on to be the in-house sound designer for Walt Disney World, composing the fresh, euphoric, scientific-sounding music that’s still memorably piped into places like Epcot and Tomorrowland.

I get the same feeling of hearing something exceptionally forward-looking yet locked in a particular era when listening to A Lasting Impression. If the press release had said Pfeffer had written these pieces thirty-five years ago and they’d languished, unreleased, I’d have not been surprised. To do this type of thing today is brave. We’re not used to hearing electronics like this in 2020, and so to enjoy it requires a little adjustment. Once you do, it’s a perfectly enjoyable record, full of interesting details and moments.

My personal favourite sequence arrives with the gleeful, squelchy opening minutes of the third part, largely because it transports me to the deck of Narcoossee’s on a balmy Florida evening several years ago watching The Electrical Water Pageant (originally scored by Dorsey) burble and fizz its inimitable way past with my daughters; just for giving me the the opportunity to reminisce about that makes this album entirely worth it.

A Lasting Impression by Avi Pfeffer is released February 7 2020 by Pumpedita.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Sunda Arc – Tides

Tides - Sunda Arc.jpg

My first introduction to Sunda Arc came with a December 2018 show supporting Go Go Penguin at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I was left speechless as brothers Nick and Jordan Smart presented a thrilling, loud, bass-rich techno-inflected set that fused intricate electronics with Jordan Smart’s clarinet; it contained such velocity and intensity that I honestly figured the roof of the 1867 concert venue was going to collapse.

The duo quickly released their debut EP Flicker in the days that followed and it didn’t disappoint, capturing the precise essence of that live set that felt so compatible with Go Go Penguin’s own – in spite of Go Go Penguin’s flavour of jazz being written with electronics but played acoustically, whereas Sunda Arc keep the electronics in. It was, perhaps inevitably, more restrained than the live show had been, but only in volume.

Their debut album, Tides, is, in comparison, strangely muted. Aside from the juddering Warp-inflected ‘Dawn’, the slowly growing shimmer of ‘Everything At Once’, the utterly gorgeous ‘Cluster’, and the ominous kick drums of ‘Hymn’, it’s not that the album lacks energy, it just feels like that energy might have taken on a more rueful, less recognisably euphoric tone. A sparseness, or even a brittleness, permeates through these pieces, spliced in with a cautious fragility maybe. Listen to all the components of the aforementioned ‘Hymn’ and it’s hard to know precisely where that comes from – its juddering electro rhythm has plenty of forward motion, and its central melody is not immediately plaintive, questioning or uncertain.

‘Secret Window’ takes that maudlin disposition and attaches it to delicate piano loops and mournful reeds, while ‘Vespers’ does the same only with sheets of ice-bright Bob Fripp-style atmospherics. These are pieces that feel like they could erupt into something edgy and dangerous at any moment, but instead they stay firmly bedded down in an achingly beautiful, yet ultimately sorrowful place.

Once you realise that this is just where Tides wants to stay, it makes for an incredibly well-crafted, detailed and wonderfully minimalist record, full of meticulous gestures and an ever-shifting palette of complex sounds. In spite of the Smart brothers’ role in hip Norwich modern jazz unit Mammal Hands, any overtones from that group lurking around on Tides are discrete, tentative and sporadic. The mysterious ‘Collapse’ is the exception, Jordan’s bass clarinet leading this album centrepiece through an atmospheric, electronically-structured ride through a vibrant, edgy, futuristic souk.

Tides by Sunda Arc is released February 7 2020 by Gondwana.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Thomas Köner – Motus

MP6_front.jpg

“I dream of a dance floor where Motus would be enjoyed,” says Thomas Köner. “What kind of society would allow that?”

His ambition isn’t necessarily wilfully controversial or provocative, but it nevertheless underpins a desire to unshackle music from the notion of grids, beats, BPMs and electronic music formalism. Motus is the latest instalment in Köner’s gently subversive approach to analogue synthesis, something I first experienced way back in June 1996 with ‘Untitled’, a track included on a CD given away with The Wire (Miaow! (…Cats What I Call Music)). That track was, on face value, a recording containing virtually nothing, a distant, ephemeral rumble easily overtaken by real life; to experience it, one had to tune everything out, turn it up loud and concentrate very hard. Only then could you hear the rich, undulating turbulence that the piece was actually constructed from. It was loud music, just presented very quietly.

Motus, comparatively, is bold, noisy and restless. Freed from the tyranny of the beat, tracks like ‘SUBSTRATE (Binaural)’ take their forward motion not from an obvious rhythm, but the ebbing waves of a modular sequence, whose pace only alters materially when the waveform is tweaked. The effect is, for those used to hearing music anchored to a pattern of kick drums, hi-hats and snare sounds, mildly unnerving. You want to attach these sequences to a rhythm, even though it’s not there, your inner clock suddenly thrown off track by a subtle modulation here or there.

Strangely, the effect of this – despite being made from nothing more than artificial waveforms and electrical current – is to remind you that nature does not cling rigidly to perfection. Gusts of wind don’t readily adhere to a quantised location on a screen; a bird’s flapping wings are not operating at a consistent BPM; your heart is more than likely not beating at precisely the same pace as it was when you started reading this (it will either have slowed down through disengagement or sped up through the panic of a beat-less musical world). It takes pieces like ‘SUBSTANCE (Suicide)’, and the other six tracks on Motus to make you realise that.

Motus by Thomas Köner is released February 6 2020 by Mille Plateaux.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Infinite Scale – The Value of Accessibility

Following on from their excellent BUNKR and Echaskech releases, VLSI Records continue to cultivate that rare ability in a label of creating a cohesive identity while simultaneously showcasing acts who have their own personalities.

Such is the case with Harmi Paldi, who has been creating music under the alias of Infinite Scale since 2005. Opening track ‘Caught On Tape’ gives the feeling of leaning forward without falling over, like a glitchy, fragmented Jack Dawson holding Rose Dewitt Bukater at a 45-degree angle on the bow of the Titanic.

‘The Chauffeur’ is fuelled by a laconic bass-line that tethers all the other moving parts to its roots. ‘Ordinary Familiar’ splutters wonderfully to a halt like ‘French Kiss’ deprived of its morning caffeine. Album closer ‘Steppa Side’s wooziness suggests a more playful side which strikes a nice balance with the more muted tones of the track that precedes it, ‘Pay For This’.

The album concerns itself with the ease we have of accessing information and the sheer volume of data available to us. It also suggests a longing for the pre-internet days of anticipation and manual discovery. The use of the word ‘tape’ in one of the titles reveals a fondness for the tactile joy of physical objects. In a digital world items such as audio and video cassettes look and feel antiquated, and it’s easy to see why they might become fetishised by generations who were deprived of the pleasure of possessing them first time around.

Does accessibility trump first-hand experience? Can second-hand experiences ever match seeing and feeling things unfold in the flesh? Does it matter? Are we guilty of setting our personal filters too far to the point where we only interact with our own doppelgängers?

Perhaps the reality is if we solely embrace this constant source of never-ending information we will end up isolated and our opinions homogenised.

The Value Of Accessibility‘s strength lies in its ability to process and present ideas without losing its humanity or identity. To have information at one’s fingertips suits those of us who can no longer can be free in their movements, whether due to geographical responsibilities, mobility issues, or the end of free movement in Europe post-Brexit. Luckily, records such as these transcend physical borders.

The Value Of Accessibility by Infinite Scale is released January 31 2020 by VLSI Records.

Words: David Best. David is a founding member of Fujiya & Miyagi and Ex-Display Model.

(c) 2020 David Best for Further.